1 Big Idea to Think About

  • An essential intent done right is one decision that makes a thousand decisions. Once you’ve decided your essential intent, you know which other things to do and not to do to make accomplishing your goals a reality.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Create an essential intent using a version of the following formula: Verb + Outcome + Population + Outcome + Verb.
  • Choose a touchstone word for this year (or decade) that is represents something essential for you.

3 Questions to Ask

  • What is your essential intent?
  • Why does this matter to you?
  • Using your essential intent, what is one decision you can make today?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The difference between pretty clear and really clear (3:10)
  • The value in creating an essential intent (8:18)
  • The formula for creating an essential intent (12:01)
  • Greg’s essential intent for this year (14:53)
  • The importance of protecting the asset (16:58)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m here with you on this journey to learn. It has long been thought that at the beginning of the new year, you should make a long list of everything that you want to achieve. But that, I believe, is false. What we know now is that what’s more important is to have a clear single intent. Instead of simply making an aspiration to do more than you’ve ever done before, you should focus to do less but better. 

Have you ever fallen into the trap of making too many New Year’s resolutions? Today, I will share a story, something counterintuitive that I am learning, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to set your essential intent for this year. Let’s begin. 

Remember not to take this journey alone. To learn faster, to understand more deeply, to increase your influence, teach one idea from this episode with someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours.

I can’t even count the number of times where I’ve worked with executives who suggest that their company or team’s purpose or strategy is pretty clear, as if to say that that is sufficient. But anyone who wears glasses knows perfectly well that there’s a huge difference between pretty clear and really clear. The same seems true with individuals. When I ask people, what do you really want out of your career over the next five years? Or what do you really want out of your life over the next five years? I am still taken aback by how few people can answer those questions. 

This would matter less if it were not for the case that clarity of purpose so consistently predicts how people do in their jobs and how they perform in their lives. In working with executive teams, I have been amazed to see what happens when teams are only sort of clear about what they are trying to achieve rather than really clear.

For one, there is a heavy price just in terms of human dynamics. In fact, the fact is motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose. You can train leaders on communication and teamwork and conduct 360 feedback reports until you’re blue in the face. But if a team does not have clarity of goals and roles, problems will fester and multiply. And this is true also for our personal lives, is it not? If you don’t have a unifying sense of purpose for you, for your partner, your spouse, your family, or even the extended team that makes up your friend group. If there’s no sense of unifying purpose, what happens instead is that people make up their own games. And sometimes you can find teams that are exceptionally political, friend groups where the game seems to be all about who’s performing against who. It’s more like a frenemy group than it is a friend group.

This is not something that’s just a personalized theory for me, something that I have noticed or read somewhere else. In gathering data from more than 500 people about their experiences on more than a thousand teams, I have found consistent reality. When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, frustration, and worse. When there is a high level of clarity, people thrive. When there’s a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many. When they have sufficient levels of clarity, they are capable of greater breakthroughs and innovations greater than people even realize they ought to have in those areas that are truly vital. 

And it’s not just all about this playing of politics where you are trying to make up your own game because you don’t know how to actually win the game. It can also happen the other way around, where the hierarchy becomes more firmly established so that the game itself is looking good to the person who’s in charge. And that can be informal team relationships. And it can also be true in informal friend groups or in more family-based settings where the hierarchy becomes the game itself. Almost like we are playing with a mini monarchy, and how we represent ourselves to the king, to the queen, this is what it’s all about and what our position is in relation to them. 

This is not the ideal focus. And let’s just go a little further in this analysis. What if the hierarchy you are playing against isn’t one in any formal sense at all but is against people you haven’t even met? Maybe it’s how many followers you have on social media or how you perform against other people who you watch on social media or other people that you are in some kind of vague competition with.

These things can actually become the focus of our lives, the priority of our lives, the center of our lives, and such a pursuit is surely not ideal. Surely we should not be deciding what we do in our lives because of other people who we don’t even know are doing in their lives. Surely we should not be making the trade-offs that we make based upon some other person’s ill-defined, undefined set of values and directions. Surely we should not make our decisions this year based upon what we think other people want. 

What we want instead is our own essential intent. That is a single purpose that is clearly defined to us clearly enough that we can make trade-offs in our own lives around that intent. I’m not talking about vague vision statements and mission statements, whether that’s for a team or for our own lives.

I’m not talking just about a list of values, nor am I saying that making such vision and mission statements and value statements are pointless, nor am I suggesting just a series of goals that you must achieve based on certain metrics this quarter. Not saying there’s not a place for all of these directional documents. Nevertheless, I’m talking about something different, an essential intent. For those of you that are familiar with Essentialism already, you already know what I’m talking about. But nevertheless, as you come into this year, isn’t it timely to be able to reconsider this, to look at our lives and to say what’s been going on? And so what, why does that matter? And now what? What am I going to do about it this year? What will my focus be? And this is a process not so much of wordsmithing. It’s certainly not from overthinking. It’s from making decisions. 

An essential intent done right is one decision that makes a thousand decisions. Once you’ve decided that this is your focus, you know which other things to do and not to do to reinforce this primary position of this focus, making it real. So as you come to other decisions all through this week and through the next month, and then, of course, through the rest of the year, you are looking for ways to reinforce this emphasis so that, in fact, over time, it becomes easier and easier to enthrone and invest in this area because there’s so many supportive elements. And what we’re really talking about here is the essence of strategy. Because strategy isn’t just a statement, a strategy must be reinforced by all the things we say no to so that there are resources and energy to be able to support this priority focus.

But strategy is more than that because in investing in this area of focus, you are creating a reinforcing system. Maybe you are bringing particular people into your life. Maybe you are identifying as many as half a dozen books that you will read specifically to reinforce this area for your life. Perhaps you are building incentive systems, rethinking your routines, establishing meaningful rituals, all of these things, these reinforcing elements of a system that mean that by the end of the year, it’s self-evident and obvious, of course, you’ll achieve it. Your confidence in your intent increases because your investment in that area increases. So at first, your essential intent may seem impossible, but then as you make trade-offs to reinforce it, it becomes probable, then possible, then likely, and eventually almost impossible not to achieve it. Not by just some magic of the mind but because you have taken specific action to make this more likely.

An essential intent sometimes has the following structure: verb, outcome, population, outcome, verb. I’ve changed that, by the way, a little bit from previous times that I’ve taught it based on my experience of applying it. Verb: What is it that you do? Outcome: What is the immediate outcome that you’re expecting? Then for who. Who’s the priority customer? Who do you serve? I mean, all purpose begins with people, begins with who we are serving, and what contribution we’re trying to make. 

And then the second outcome in this madlibs exercise is even more specific and then date by when. As we’re starting this new year, it’s a perfect time to be thinking about this – a year. So often in my planning, I can overestimate what I do in a day or what I’m going to accomplish in a week and underestimate what I can do in a year or, of course, in 10 years.

Essential intent applies to so much more than your job description or your company’s mission statement. A true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose and helps you chart your life’s path. And while I have shared this particular structure for an essential intent, I don’t think you have to be limited by that. It may be more efficient for you, more meaningful for you to identify a single word. It’s one that has to be rich with meaning for you, a touchstone that you can come back to again and again. Perhaps you pick a word for the year, but don’t be limited by that. Perhaps you pick one word for the decade, something essential, something you cannot forget, something you know you need to emphasize day after day. 

Creating an essential intent can be a challenge. It certainly takes courage and insight, and foresight to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contribution. That’s not just design, that takes detection, deciphering. And then, once you’ve defined it, once you’ve discovered it, it takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising some serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. I mean, of course, it’s worth it because only with real clarity of purpose can people and teams, and whole organizations for that matter, fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent. And that is the spirit. 

I’ve wondered about adding a little postscript to this conversation. It’s a little vulnerable, but I think I will go there. All the specific details are not mine, and Anna’s to share, but over the last few weeks, we’ve had reason to examine in a renewed and serious way our own approach to health. And I think it’s fair to say that the chances are high that I will live 10 years longer because I’m married to Anna. 

She has been serious about this subject for many years and in lots of reinforcing ways, and yet nevertheless, and perhaps you can even hear it in my voice that I’m not especially well while having this conversation. But a few days ago, Anna had a bit of a eureka, a breakthrough moment, a sense, let’s say, of what we need to do differently, not for the next few days. We have done things differently over the last few days. We’ve already started to implement changes, go back to some old rituals that we’ve had before, get to sleep earlier, sleep a lot longer, going on walks together, eating more healthily. You know, the holidays don’t always bring the very best of us out in terms of diet. You know what I’m talking about. And so we’ve identified this as a focus point going into this new year. 

I hope to have Anna on the show shortly so that we can delve into this a bit more deeply. But for now, I share it briefly for two reasons. One, because I’m here with you on this journey. Essential intent is real for me. And it takes a lot of wrestling to figure out, amidst the many different pressures and responsibilities and possible areas of focus, what should be the priority focus now, what should be the intent over this year, and to connect that to deep wise so that the motivation lasts. 

I share it also because I don’t think we are alone in identifying this as an essential area that is often neglected to protect our asset. The whole idea behind protecting the asset is there precisely because we often do not protect the asset. In fact, I would argue it’s the very first thing to go when we feel stressed, when we’ve committed to too many things, and when things start to get out of control, it’s the first thing that we drop out. And part of the reason for that is because consequences take time to show. And so today, maybe there’s hardly any showing for that choice. And maybe if we make that poor trade-off for a week or a month, we can get away with it. It doesn’t look different on the outside. We don’t come across different in our relationships, perhaps. But over the longer period, we’re making a fool’s bargain. 

So as we go into this new year sprinkled throughout the episodes, I will be inviting specific guests who can help guide us to more precise, better ways to protect the asset. It’s not going to be the sole focus of the podcast, but this is an explanation for why I am going to be doing any of this work at all. I hope you’ll enjoy that journey and join us on this journey because, in the final analysis, we all have such limited time, such limited energy. Even if we look after ourselves well, in the great scheme of things, even that is a finite resource, and there is so much to contribute in the world. So we want to make these decisions as carefully, as wisely as we possibly can, to set our intents carefully, and to pursue them with discipline. 

So I leave you with that question as you go into this new year: What is your essential intent? 

What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why does that matter to you, do you think? And who is one person you can share that insight with over the next 24 to 48 hours? Today, we have covered the importance and power of creating an essential intent, a single decision that makes a thousand decisions. I’ve shared some insights into how one might approach creating one and also an essential intent that Anna and I have established going into this new year. 

Thank you, really, thank you for listening. And if you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Remember also to subscribe to the 1-Minute Wednesday newsletter, that’s now going out to more than 140,000 people and growing all the time. Subscribe to this podcast if you haven’t already so that you receive the new episodes every Tuesday and every Thursday. I’ll see you next time.